Stop the Sweeps: Restart Humanity

An Interview with Meghan “Roadkill” Johnson, conducted by the Stolen Belonging team  

Photo of Roadkill by Leslie Dreyer

Meghan “Roadkill” Johnson is a shelter client advocate who was homeless for 10 years, on and off the streets of San Francisco and throughout California. Her cherished and vital belongings were taken by employees of the City’s Department of Public works and the police department during the sweeps. Fortunately, she and her children are now housed, but it was not an easy road. Johnson is also a member of the Stolen Belonging project, and in this interview she provides some deep, rooted perspective on homelessness in San Francisco as well as transformative ways those in city leadership positions should be handling the issue. Below are excerpts from a much longer interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

Stolen Belonging Team: Can you describe how you think the City of San Francisco treats unhoused folks in general?

Meghan “Roadkill” Johnson: I have a firm belief that if people actually lived through homelessness once in their life, I feel like there wouldn’t be such prejudice against homeless people. I also feel that people would likely start tapping in and trying to find ways to end homelessness because they had been in those people’s shoes. We live in a society where if it’s not happening to you, folks just turn around and forget about it, or others make judgements: They make themselves feel better by making others feel small. 

How do you think the City should change their behavior?

First off, stop the sweeps. That’s always our biggest demand. And then secondly, stop making militarized programs like HSOC (Healthy Streets Operations Center). That’s going away from what we would want for homeless people. [Mayor London] Breed likes to use that whole “tough love” bit, suggesting homeless residents are service-resistant, when there aren’t actual offers of adequate housing or services. It’s a matter of reaching out to these people and creating some form of trust first. 

I want Breed to challenge that idea that she has against it and try to see it for what it is: People are struggling because there’s a lack of housing. People are struggling because there is a lack of mental health resources. I’m not talking about the criminalizing idea of conservatorship. I’m talking about actual services that care about and preserve people’s autonomy. 

Try to imagine a San Francisco without cops and sweeps. Share what you think the city looks and feels like.

I think it would be a relief for so many people who have to deal with sweeps and the police on a daily basis. It would be a moment to breathe, to actually be able to do something for yourself and not feel like you’re going to be ridiculed or be assaulted for being you. I feel like a lot of the communities that are already very tightly knit would come together even more. Because I do have a strong belief in self-governance. I feel like if you give people a chance, they will rise to the occasion.

People would start stabilizing a little more too. I don’t feel like the City and the police really know the consequences of plaguing these communities with their presence. Their presence is always negative for homeless folk and people of color. Police are not trained and should not be responding to matters of housing and health. 

There would also be time to actually work on yourself too. People who haven’t been given that space would finally be able to self-reflect and think about what they want out of life. You can’t ponder about it when you have to keep moving your stuff and repeatedly find new survival gear.

What are the biggest barriers to housing everyone?

It’s all about opportunities. If they were faced with opportunity, a lot of them would be able to stabilize and actually start seeing such a positive improvement in their lives. The majority of the people that are still on the streets could and should be placed in housing. However, a lot of landlords don’t want to rent out to homeless people or formerly homeless people. 

I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in the last three years that I’ve been housed. Everything that I’m doing in my life, I never thought was possible. When you’re houseless, you shortchange yourself because that’s how society treats you. But the minute I got into housing, I got on it and I really started making movements for myself. And I really truly believe that’s what my fellow homeless people can do too. Homelessness has made me the person that I am now. What better way to give back to homeless communities than do what I do–being a shelter advocate.

Everyone is deserving of housing. I feel like if people were born into this world with housing as a basic fundamental right, we’d see a lot less negative human behavior. People would be able to see their worth. Most people never thought they were going to be homeless. It’s just a position that I would never wish on anyone.

Think about the San Francisco of your dreams, a San Francisco that lives your values, that takes care of people. Tell me a little bit about that city.

One of the dreams that I have for San Francisco would be to just start treating homeless people like humans, not just tossing them under a rug to be forgotten. That’s a big thing for me. There’s a lot of times where myself and my fellow homeless community, we’ve been dehumanized to the point where we’re just seen as this negative object of some sort.

And then another dream of mine would be the whole concept of abolishing homelessness. Not to abolish homeless people, but to abolish homelessness because that’s just the thing, they’re people and they need a home. They need to be able to have access to a bathroom. They need to be able to make warm food. They need to be able to store their medications in places that are safe where they’re not getting ripped off by DPW or others.

You give people these chances, these opportunities, and I feel like we’d have less mental health issues. That’s just my dream. I just want people to be housed up. I want people to be seen as human. I’m very tired of this whole separation, like it’s us against them. It’s like, “No, I’m a human, and so are you.”

Any last words for housed residents or those in power in San Francisco?

Sometimes people just need to get over these fucking stereotypes and these hangups because we don’t all fit into this fricking cut out of what society paints us as. And I just want them to sit there and see the society that they’ve created for people, because homeless people have always held the least amount of power ever. So for people to blame homeless people for homelessness is ignorant. It’s not pointing the finger at the right person. The only time I ever started really feeling like I had power was when I hooked up with the Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit that focuses in houseless people and wants to amplify their voice. That was the only time I felt like I actually was being heard.